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Haiti Reconstruction: Ambitious, Precarious Plans (Update)

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While scrambling to get a roof over their heads, the people of Haiti are being presented with reconstruction plans intended to radically change the Caribbean nation, decentralize power away from teeming Port-au-Prince and "build back better."

Key donors and international banking experts are meeting Wednesday at UN headquarters for a US-UN-led conference on the future of the country, shattered in a 7.0 magnitude earthquake on January 12 in the deadliest natural disaster in modern times.

Both Clintons are on hand: Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton serves as co-chair with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon while the former president, Bill Clinton, is the UN envoy for Haiti reconstruction.

The donors are being asked to pledge nearly $3.9 billion for the first phase of the reconstruction. A 55-page action plan is eventually expected to cost $11.5 billion over the next decade or longer. President Obama has asked Congress for $2.8 billion for both relief and reconstruction costs.

In presenting the plan, Haiti President Rene Preval is expected to explain his country's financial needs to construct homes, schools, government institutions and attempt to resurrect agriculture, create jobs -- and a justice and social system that is responsive to the dispossessed amid the country's rigid class structure.

And his plans stress a desperate need to move many government functions, jobs and other projects into hubs away from Port-au-Prince. He also calls for 10.4 percent economic growth in 2010 and in 2011 in a effort to reduce poverty to 40 percent from the current 54 percent.

"That is our challenge in New York -- not to rebuild but to 'build back better,' to create a new Haiti," Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in an op-ed column in the Washington Post .

Well over 200,000 people were killed in the earthquake that left over 1 million people homeless, sleeping in the streets or in makeshift camps.

Excuses, excuses

No program is to be undertaken without the consent and input from the Haitian government, according to Edmond Mulet, the acting chief UN representative in Haiti. He told reporters that for years governments and charitable groups worked around Haitian leaders, citing inefficiency and weak institutions. But he called the attitude "excuses not to work with the government" and said the rational undermined the Haitian state instead of helping it.

"I think the international community is co-responsible for that weakness of Haitian institutions and the Haitian state," Mulet said. "If we don't address the situation right now, we will have a peacekeeping mission and international interventions in Haiti for the next 200 years."

Preval's plan also calls for $350 million in direct budget support to pay civil servants and rebuild its 28 out of 29 government ministries that were destroyed, payments the United States has been reluctant to support. Cheryl Mills, chief of staff for Secretary Clinton, told reporters in New York that Washington was still "examining" the request.

Mills said a new Haitian Development Authority that includes international donors should revert to Haitian authorities within 18 months. "The goal is to ensure that with a sustainable approach we can work out way out of business," she said.

Another plan, promoted by Mulet and some Haiti officials, is for large donors -- including Brazil, Canada, France, Spain, and the European Union, co-sponsors of the conference, -- to adopt and focus efforts on a geographical area or a thematic project (land registration, fixing power grids, repairing roads etc) in an effort to reduce overlapping tasks. Donors have been given forms to state their preferences.

Meanwhile....

No reconstruction has begun as relief needs are still enormous. Violence has increased, women and girls are endangered and gang leaders, locked up by UN peacekeepers, escaped during the quake. The government lost 16,000 of its estimated 60,000 civil servants, at least 1300 educational structures and some 50 hospitals and health centers. And most of its office buildings, the parliament, and the presidential palace were destroyed.

"Obviously this medium (and) long-term reconstruction recovery is incredibly important but... if we don't get the humanitarian relief side right as well you don't have the foundation for the successful longer-term recovery," Helen Clark, the head of the UN Development Program, told reporters.

Shelter is still at a premium with many living in 800 or 900 makeshift camps around the capital, some with no more than cardboard over their heads. Money and labor has to be found to move people to larger camps outside of the city where they can be protected, but time is running out. The UN has organized police units of women only, some from abroad others among the Haitian police, once larger camps are set up.

Still, there is an obvious fear of sinking funds down a rat hole in an ambitious plan. Monitoring of the funds is to be strict; outside auditors are to supervise spending under an interim commission. It is a formidable task, with as much chance of failure as success, to rebuild a country under plans resembling Plato's Republic in the Caribbean.

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